The last time the now controversial Confederate Battle Flag flew over an armed body of true rebel soldiers was in June, 1865. On the 23rd day of that month Brigadier General Stand Watie, a chief of the Cherokee and commander of the Cherokee Mounted Rifles, surrendered his command to a Union officer at Fort Towson in the Indian Territory. That, however, was not the last time a Confederate combatant flew a rebel war flag – that distinction belongs to James Iredell Waddell, captain of the Confederate commerce raider, C.S.S. Shenandoah. His ship not only kept the Confederate naval ensign flying, it remained at war sinking Union ships until August 1865. The raider stayed at sea for another three months after that until November, when the warship became the last Confederate force to surrender.
The raider C.S.S. Shenandoah fired the last shot of the Civil War – and it did so many months after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox in April 1865. Although Waddell intercepted many ships whose captains told him of Lee’s surrender, the Confederate naval officer refused to believe the cause was lost – or that the war was over. He continued raiding until the end of June, during the last week of which he burned 21 Yankee whaling ships and captured four others – which he sent on their way packed with the crews of the vessels he destroyed.
In July 1865 Waddell set a course for San Francisco. His goal was to surprise the single Union warship guarding that port, and hold the city for ransom beneath his guns. After that he planned to capture one of the California gold ships. On August 2nd, however, when his officers stopped and boarded the merchant ship Barracouta, which had left San Francisco 13 days prior, they brought back newspapers which reported not only that the war was over and all Confederate officers, units and ships had surrendered, but that he and his crew were being hunted as pirates. That very day Waddell ordered his officers to “strike the battery and disarm the ship.”
In hopes of finding sanctuary for his crew, Waddell decided against sailing into San Francisco where upon surrendering to the United States he and his men might be hanged for piracy. Instead, he set a course for the other side of the world – England, where in the fall of 1864 he had first taken command of what would become one of the most successful commerce raiders in history. That would mean another three months at sea – and a dangerous passage around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, followed by an equally perilous run up through the South Atlantic and into European waters, all the while being hunted by the world’s navies.
Like the other rebel raiders, the C.S.S. Shenandoah rarely sailed under her true colors – and always flew a “false flag” when approaching another ship. Only when he ran out his guns to stop and board a ship would Waddell raise the Confederate flag. The Confederate Naval Ensign (pattern 1863) which he and other Confederate warships flew was a brilliant white flag with a small version of the battle flag in the top left quadrant.
On November 5, 1865, Waddell uncased his colors and ordered the Confederate naval ensign run up one last time – when she steamed up the Mersey into Liverpool under the cover of a thick fog. When hailed by a pilot boat as he entered St. George’s Channel Waddell responded to the request to identify his vessel by answering “the late Confederate steamer Shenandoah.” The next day he lowered his flag and surrendered his ship to the British government.
The Shenandoah and her crew were held in Liverpool for several days, anchored under the guns of the Royal Navy warship H.M.S. Donegal. When its commander, one Captain Paynter, boarded the former rebel cruiser to take possession on November 10 he informed Waddell that the officers and crew were free to leave – except for any British subjects, whom he was required to take into custody for possible violations of British neutrality laws. Although many of the 133 of the Shenandoah’s complement were indeed subjects of the crown, when Paynter called the roll and asked the men to state their nationality to a man they claimed to have homes and family back in one of the states that made up the former Confederacy. Paynter, of course, knew better, but chose to accept their responses, even if many were delivered in undeniably English accents.
Wadell, the last true rebel warrior, was joined in England by his wife and remained there for five years. He found work as captain in the British Pacific Mail Line – where he ran mail, ironically, to San Francisco. Pardoned by the U.S. Government, he returned to Maryland where he was given command of the coast guard that patrolled the fishing grounds. That is where he fired his last shots in anger – warning off poachers from the former Confederate state of Virginia, one of whose boats he sank and three others of which he captured, all while he flew a very different battle flag – that of the United States of America.
Mark G. McLaughlin is a journalist, novelist,and historian. Among his many published works are 17 games, including his most recent Rebel Raiders of the High Seas by GMT Games (http://www.gmtgames.com/p-238-rebel-raiders-on-the-high-seas.asp)x, and the science fiction novel, Princess Ryan’s Star Marines, can be found on Amazon and Kindle (http://www.amazon.com/Princess-Ryans-Star-Marines-Save/dp/1466218487/ref…. ).